Word Count: 23,700 words in total
Notes: Tim/Tony, allusions to Tim/Abby, Tony/Ziva. Title from the song ‘The Great Pretender.’
Summary: Tim is forced to fake his own death and go into hiding. Meanwhile, he and Tony have been engaged in a relationship... of sorts.
Dying made him revaluate his life.
Before it had happened, before he’d been buried, he’d been on a journey of self-enrichment. How to be a better man in ninety-nine small but steady steps. A little voice always telling him what he could do to be extra awesome, a personal trainer, a new hobby each year. Layer upon layer of complexity, sandwiching a creamy inner core of substance. He hoped. He’d wanted to change, to be more than he was. He’d been trying to evolve, to be smarter, stronger, fitter, sexier.
Right now? He would give anything to be former Webelos Special Agent Timothy McGee, über-geeky MIT and John Hopkins graduate who was too trusting for his own good, and too good not to be trusting. Hell, he’d even prefer to be High School student Timothy McGee, paying his way to college by cleaning portable toilets. He didn’t exactly want to be Thom E Gemcity, because there was a deadline looming and 12,000 missing words.
He wanted to be who he was, no more confident, no more wise, nothing special. Just a guy who loved computers and solving crime. Someone who didn’t always say the right things, wear the right clothes. But had the right intentions. Most of the time. He wanted to be working on Gibbs’ team, hacking when the need called for it, sending out BOLOs, doing the grunt work, smiling at Ziva, bickering with Tony.
He didn’t want to be legally dead, living under an assumed name, wondering if he’d ever see the team in the flesh again, if he’d ever get to work with them again.
It didn’t seem fair that he should have to go through this ordeal to have this epiphany. He was positive most people either came to accept themselves for who they were out of sheer laziness, or that they never did at all. And it wasn’t that he thought all forms of self-improvement were corrupt, or unnecessary, or pointless, it was just --- he had spent so much time concentrating on who he could be, that he’d forgotten to enjoy who he was.
Dying made him revaluate his life and determine that he wanted it back.
There were words for how shitty his day had been. Actually, shitty just about covered it. Being a desk monkey was not why he’d signed up for NCIS, even though he recognised his skills tended toward sitting behind a computer all day. He didn’t hate it, most of the time. It wasn’t like he woke up dreading work, would deliberately stay up until 3 am slaying kobolds because going to sleep meant waking up all the sooner (not always.) It was simply not what he wanted, in the long run.
He was prepared to admit to himself that when Tony DiNozzo rang to ask for technical assistance, the deep, dark, motivated part of himself he usually kept a close eye on sprang to life and suggested that this could be his way into field work. He jotted down the directions Tony gave him and figured out which bus routes he needed to get there.
Tony was weirdly overjoyed to see him. Tim hadn’t experienced this kind of glee at his appearance since Brian Weinstein saw him in costume as George Washington in eighth grade. It hadn’t been a good sign then and Tim doubted it was a good sign now.
“You made it, McGee!”
Tim tentatively stepped across the threshold. “Yeah. Once you get past the guys with guns, the first moat, and the sharks with lasers in the second moat, you’re pretty much home free.”
“You made it and sarcasm does not become you. Please, come in, but don’t touch anything.”
Tony gestured to his couch, but as Tim had just been told not to touch anything, he was confused --- was he meant to sit? Was this a test? Tony was staring at him like he was an idiot. He sat down, rubbing his knees to stop his legs from jittering.
“Where’s your system?”
Tony shook his head. “Don’t worry about that yet. Do you want a drink? What’s your poison?”
“Water would be good,” Tim said. He glanced around Tony’s apartment as Tony went to get the drinks. There was a wall full of DVDs, a coffee table covered in magazines. Not much of a sense of order. He dreaded to think what his hard drive might look like. “So what’s wrong with it?”
“I don’t know. Blinky things aren’t blinking any more. It’s not important,” Tony replied, handing over a large glass. “So, anyway, I pulled out my Star Wars DVDs, because I’ve been told your people like them.”
“Geeks. And I was thinking, we should totally watch these, now that they’re out and everything.”
Tim’s stomach flipped a couple of times and he worked hard at not letting that terror show. Tony was smirking, and sitting next to him, leaning back with casual grace, and Tim could see himself being dunked head first into a toilet in ten seconds flat. He placed his glass carefully on the coffee table.
“Your computer’s fine, isn’t it?”
“Possibly. I never use it. I made popcorn.”
“Okay,” Tim said, wanting to say so much more besides, but not brave enough to protest.
Tony grabbed the popcorn, started the DVD, and sprawled into an even more relaxed position --- too close for comfort. Tim spent the first portion of the film watching him out of the corner of his eye. He finally relaxed when Obi Wan told Luke he needed to learn the ways of the force.
By the time they’d eaten all the popcorn and home-made calzones, Tony had shown him his Ewok impression, and the Rebel celebrations raged on Endor, Tim was half-asleep. He stretched his legs forward and closed his eyes for a moment, listening to the beat of his heart. The couch was soft and warm and he was feeling satisfyingly full and entertained. The quiet didn’t last for long. Before he knew it, feminine moans were emanating from the television and every single one of his senses sprang wide awake.
Tony was sitting, eyes glued to the television, hand idling over his crotch. On screen, two women were pleasuring themselves, long fingernails glistening as they contorted in interestingly flexible ways.
Tim could feel the blush creeping up his neck to the tips of his ears, and he tried not to, but he squeaked. “What’re you doing?”
“I’m watching porn. It’s what most red blooded men do.”
“Not in polite company.”
“You’re polite?” Tony asked with a wide, amused grin. “Most house guests bring a present for their host. Dessert or wine, or those cute little truffle chocolate things that melt in your mouth. You brought nothing but yourself.”
“I didn’t know I was a guest, I thought you were using me ---” Tim stopped himself, licked his lower lip. He’d been distracted again. Tony had already proven to be upsettingly adept at that.
“As free tech support,” he concluded, lamely.
Tony’s grin widened. “That was just the bait.” He turned back to the screen, popped open the button on his jeans.
Tim figured this was his cue to leave. Tony was playing some kind of game with him, luring him to his house and then kicking him out to exert his power. He was not going to let Tony push him around. He stayed sitting, watching the porn with detached interest. One of the girls, the brunette, was thrusting three fingers into herself, over acting as she pouted at the camera. Tony had escalated to pulling his cock free from his boxers, stroking rhythmically. Tim could see every movement in his peripheral vision.
“You intrigue me, McGee,” Tony said, voice rich and slow.
“Good for you.”
“This is making you uncomfortable.”
“Wow, is it that obvious?”
“But you haven’t left.”
“No. I’m not gonna let you toy with me for your amusement. Screw you.”
Tim chanced a direct look at Tony and was a little disturbed to see an expression he couldn’t decode. Tony bit his lower lip, leaned closer. Tim thought he was probably going to haul him up off the couch now, toss him out the apartment. He wasn’t exactly banking on Tony kissing him.
If he hadn’t thought this whole situation was like something out of a mirrorverse version of his life before, he certainly did now.
He kissed Tony back. He was turned on and Tony was attractive and he hadn’t had sex in a really long time --- and Tim could continue supplying excuses as to why he was sucking gently on Tony’s tongue and pushing closer, but there was no point. They were kissing.
Tony went straight for the kill, undoing the zipper on his pants and gripping him. Tim was already half-hard, so the touch was more than welcome and he canted his hips up for more contact. Tony ended the kiss, staring into Tim’s eyes as he started to stroke, the beginnings of a lop-sided smile curving his lips.
“You know I’m not gay, right, Tony?” Tim asked, experiencing a heady mixture of elation and fear.
“I didn’t ask and I’m gonna pretend you didn’t tell,” Tony replied. He gestured at the screen with his free hand. “But ditto, for what it’s worth.”
Tim wanted to simply enjoy sensation and forget about logic for a while, but even though he was mostly distracted by Tony’s thumb glancing across the top of his cock, his brain was still working overtime.
“Then what is this?”
“Do you have to analyse everything?”
“Uh, yeah. It’s kind of my job.”
Tony squinted at him, rolled his head around like he was rolling Tim’s words in his mind. “It’s two guys enjoying some guy time together.”
“I think you’ve gotten one of your vowels confused.”
“Don’t be a smartass,” Tony said, thrusting his own hips close into his side.
Tony continued to stroke him and Tim finally bought a clue, wrapping his hand around Tony’s cock, quirking his eyebrow in query. Tony nodded, his grin growing wider. Tim let his confusion go float around somewhere outside as he let his instinct take over, pushing Tony so that his back was again pressed close to the back of the couch. He swung around and positioned himself so that their cocks were aligned, adjusting until he had them just right. The angle hurt his left knee, and he was worried he might be a little too heavy, so he tried to keep all his weight on his right foot, but Tony held onto his sides and looked up at him with a kind of admiration that had him forgetting to care. He began to stroke them simultaneously, using both of his hands to slide up and down, precome making it easier than he expected, all slippery and slick.
“Okay, this is precisely why,” Tony said, didn’t finish the sentence, and reached up to kiss Tim. He slid his tongue into his mouth, smooth and easy, and Tim’s last truly complete thought, with a beginning, middle and end, was ‘he should win all kinds of awards.’
He stayed as still as he could. An inadequate part of him always wanted to run away when Gibbs was staring at him like that, and six years of working for him had done exactly nothing to assuage his all-encompassing fear that Gibbs would somehow find a way to stare him into oblivion. Sometimes he wished he were a Marine, but even they would crumble before the death glare. Neither Kate nor Ziva had managed to stand up tall and incur his wrath. Abby succeeded in wrapping Gibbs around her little finger, but she had that effect on everyone. None of the directors had ever had a handle on him. And Tony. Well, Tony pushed on occasion, but never got very far, and beat himself up whenever he did something that would even remotely disappoint Gibbs. The only person Tim had seen stand up to Gibbs and not crack into a million pieces was Ducky, and they had known each other a long time. He knew he wasn’t alone when it came to his fear, but it took almost every ounce of his self-control not to let it destroy him until he was little more than an incomprehensible gibber.
“The boat’s coming along nicely, Boss.”
“Ya think, McGee?”
Tim especially hated it when Gibbs responded to his nervous idle chit-chat with accusation. He averted his gaze back to the shell of the boat and tried to decide if the question was rhetorical or not. Gibbs sighed. Tim continued looking at the boat. Gibbs shifted his weight from his left to his right foot. Tim continued looking at the boat, now wondering why Gibbs was behaving uncharacteristically. Gibbs stepped close to him. The boat looked majestic in the dull lighting.
“Tim, I want you to go deep undercover.”
Tim’s full attention was snapped right back onto Gibbs. “Boss, are you serious?”
“Yeah. I am.”
“Sweet!” Tim grinned in glee at the idea of finally going undercover. Then replayed Gibbs’ words in his mind. “Wait. How deep?”
“Deep. You’re gonna be required to infiltrate a terrorist cell.”
“Wouldn’t Ziva be better suited to that kind of work?”
“Well, yeah, McGee, but she doesn’t have a Masters in computer science, nor does she regularly hack into public services and know almost everything there is to know when it comes to technical stuff. And she is also not American.” Gibbs took a swig of bourbon and peered at the jar he took it from. “It’s a joint FBI, NCIS mission. The FBI received intel that a home-grown organisation was looking for a new hacker. They’re one of those vigilante groups --- think the only way to win the war on terror is to create more terror. At least, that’s what they say. Fornell suspects their motivation isn’t even that noble. It’s more about making a profit.”
Tim shrugged his shoulders a couple of times to loosen muscles that had become tense. “How long?”
“As long as it takes.”
“Before the infiltration?”
“As soon as possible.”
Tim spun the pros and cons around in his head. Pro: He’d be undercover! Con: He’d be undercover. Pro: He’d be using his skills to help defend his country. Con: At first, he’d be using his skills to destroy his country. Pro: This was challenging and new. Con: This was potentially life threatening and involved a great deal of change in a short amount of time.
He went on in this fashion for a while, weighing it up. He had as many cons as he did pros, and some of them overlapped.
“For the record, I don’t like this, but I owe Fornell. And the reason we’re asking you, Tim, is that you’re the only person with the talent to pull it off that we absolutely, positively know we can trust.”
Tim frowned, willed himself not to pout. “When you put it like that, how can I say no?”
“Is that a yes?”
Tim took a deep, bracing breath. “Yeah, Boss. I’ll do it.”
Gibbs nodded, once. Took his phone from his pocket. “Fornell will brief you in full. He can be here in twenty minutes.”
Tim blanched. “You really did mean as soon as possible.”
“There’ll be no long goodbyes. There’s no time.”
“Let’s hope Abby, Ziva, Ducky and Tony do.”
“Don’t forget Jimmy.”
“I wasn’t aware you two were close.”
Tim made a half-hearted sound of assent and tried to figure out if he was meant to be feeling overjoyed or terrified. He settled on feeling anticipatory. That way, he was good and neutral.
Twenty minutes after telling Tim he was promoted, Gibbs took him aside and gave him a quick rundown of the first twenty rules he’d have to learn to live by. Tim stood under the air conditioning vent and listened, rapt and alert as sweat slowly evaporated from his body and tingled against the fine hairs of his skin.
“Rule twelve is probably the most applicable at this current moment in time,” Gibbs finished, poking Tim in the chest with only a vague threat of menace. Perhaps unbridled joy was blocking Tim’s danger receptors.
“How so, Boss?”
Gibbs gave him the look he gave when he wasn’t being nice. The usual look. “You remember what rule twelve is, don’t you, McGee?”
“Never date a co-worker?”
“That would be the one.”
Tim’s mouth went dry. Sweat trickled into one of his eyes. He had an itch on his nose. He had to think about anything other than the voice in his head screaming ‘he knows about Tony! What the hell do I do?’
“You’re gonna have to break it off with Abby, McGee.”
Tim nodded. He was supposed to be explaining, but he nodded all the same, because his relief was palpable. “Right Boss.”
“My suggestion? Be gentle, but firm. Don’t apologise.”
Gibbs started to walk away, but Tim knew how close they were and if Abby were to find out he made it sound like he’d ended their relationship, when she’s told him weeks ago it wouldn’t work out --- there would be hell to pay.
“To be honest, Boss, Abby already broke it off with me.”
By this time, Gibbs was several feet away. “I don’t care.”
Tim was about to go back to the desk he’d been given to take another look at the internals to his new computer (not having read any regulations against overclocking the CPU), when Tony came close. He was exceptionally bad at not looking furtive. He cast his eyes around the room at least three times before turning his interrogative stare onto Tim.
“What’d the Boss say?”
“He said ‘watch out for DiNozzo, he’s nothing but a bad influence. You’d be advised to ignore everything he says.’”
“No. Just said I shouldn’t let you push me around. And told me the first twenty of his rules. The other thirty are coming later, apparently.”
“Lucky! When I joined Gibbs’ team, I was given a five hour lecture on the ins and outs of conduct at NCIS. It was gruelling. Intense. I was almost reduced to tears. But, of course, not entirely, because I am me and me is awesome.”
Tim could feel the corners of his lips twitching. “I don’t believe you.”
“You wound me, McGee.”
“Gibbs never says more than a paragraph in an hour.”
“It was mostly conducted through glares.” Tony crossed his arms and leaned against the wall. Tim’s immediate reaction was a physical one, a compulsion to lean close, but he quashed it before it could fully form. “I think we should start your initiation tonight in the comfort of my home. Maybe over food. A beer or two.”
Tim blinked a couple of times, swallowed thickly. “I’m not sure that’s a great idea, Tony.”
“You’re busy. Of course. New job. New expectations. New set of clothes, for sure, because, no offense, but you look like a hobo who dresses two sizes too large in the dead of night.”
“No.” Tim exhaled and stared at Tony as he tried to decide how to say this when he really didn’t want to. “Rule twelve,” he said quietly, willing his chest to stop constricting.
“Isn’t applicable. We’re friends, McGee. There are no rules against that. In fact, it’s actively encouraged.”
Tim drew close, holding onto Tony’s lapels as he spoke barely above a whisper. “Last time we had some food and a beer or two in the comfort of your home, the evening concluded with my cock in your mouth. We’re very friendly friends.”
Tony’s jaw hardened and he stepped away from Tim’s grasp. “Huh. You know, I should have seen this coming, but I had no idea they trained you to be so devious and deceptive at Norfolk.”
Tim flailed, eyebrows raised. “I don’t want it to be like this.”
“No, I get it. Honestly, I do. The job is more important than us having fun. It’s not like either of us is gonna be lonely for long. If anything, that’s more likely for you more than me. I guess I’m disappointed because I never expected you to be so calculating. But, you know, once again, of course you are. You’re ambitious. It should be admired.”
“It’s not like that.”
“Don’t worry, McGee. I won’t be any worse on you than I would be on any other Probie. Call it my congratulatory gift to you.”
Tony gave a bitter little smile and walked away. Tim didn’t have the guts to stop him. It wasn’t like he had anything to say that would explain his case without Tony concluding he was a selfish user, so why expend the energy?
Having red hair didn’t suit him in the slightest. It looked natural, fitted his complexion, but every time he looked in the mirror, he wanted to scream ‘wrong, wrong, wrong’ at his reflection. He’d read somewhere that disguising your appearance this way only drew attention to you, but it had been Fornell’s suggestion, and he was in the FBI, they did this kind of thing all the time, he had to know what he was talking about, didn’t he?
He checked his feeds, ensuring his link with the cameras was still in place. He’d tried to hack into Abby’s lab a month into his solitary confinement, but no luck. After the last time the webcam had been unknowingly taken over, they’d taken measures. He was unable to hack through his own defences, which made him feel a mixture of victorious and pathetic he didn’t want to spend much time analysing. He hadn’t known this would ever happen, so he hadn’t created a back door, and now he wished he was no more than he was except maybe a little psychic. He was still connected with the surveillance cameras outside, though.
He told himself it wasn’t totally creepy to be spying on his work colleagues this way. He was curious. He was bored. He missed them. And the fact he was at his computer every day, looking intently at the screen around the time Tony arrived for work was pure coincidence.
So he was unprepared for how concerned he would be when Tony didn’t appear at his prescribed time. Or thirty minutes late. Or four hours later. Tony had the day off. Tony would have to be suffering the pneumonic plague to not be at work. Colds, stomach bugs, hang-overs --- nothing stopped him from arriving --- not always on time, but eventually. He might not do a whole lot while he was there (though Tim knew appearances were deceiving even on that front), but he was there. Wisecracking at Gibbs, flirting with Ziva. He wasn’t on holiday, he hadn’t accrued enough leave. Either he was on another secret mission, or something else was going on. Tim didn’t want to think about what those other things might be.
But he did, as he was doing his crunches. Thought about it more when he worked on shoulder presses, lateral raises and curls. His whole routine, not once concentrating on his movements, instead worrying about what might be wrong. He had the thought that maybe Tony had gone back to the office late at night and stayed all day, so he went through and checked. No Tony. He’d left the night before and hadn’t arrived since.
Day turned into night and he hacked into the ATM camera near Tony’s place, setting his recognition software running when he could feel his eyes straining. Chances were, he was panicking. He’d gotten paranoid constantly having to hide. But there was also a chance Tony was in trouble, and that disturbed him, more than he cared to admit.
Tim finished typing up the last word on his sympathy note as his ipod told him that, "Our attitude toward life determines life's attitude toward us." All he had to do now was print the letter off and sign it.
His attitude toward life was decidedly mixed. He hadn’t been able to save Erin, no matter how hard he tried. He’d screwed up, and a young, brilliant, wonderful person had been denied the right to reach her full potential. It had been a rookie mistake, one that proved to him that he deserved every hazing, every joke, any plea for coffee sent his way. Kate had done her best to console him. She’d said it wasn’t his fault, but it was. If he’d been faster, or told Erin to stay on the line from the beginning. If he hadn’t been across the street. The possibilities whirled around his mind, gathering speed and strength the later it got.
He was halfway down the bus route in the opposite direction to his apartment before he realised he was halfway in the right direction for Tony’s. He could only surmise it had been subconsciously deliberate. He guessed Tony probably had a date. Wasn’t even home. But he knocked on his door anyway, to make sure.
Tony opened the door, took one look at him and stepped to the side. Tim lumbered in, weighed down by exhaustion and self-hatred.
“You want a drink?” Tony asked as he closed the door.
“No. I want you.” Tim reached for Tony, pulled him close. He hadn’t meant to, but somehow he did, his mouth and hands working faster than his brain could.
Tony wriggled loose of his hold. “Hey! Hands off, McGrabby. You said we weren’t gonna do this any more.”
“I know, Tony, I just ---” he sighed, “I need to not feel pathetic.”
Tony narrowed his eyes, smirked. “But what does this mean, McIndecision?”
“Do you have to analyse everything?”
“Not even slightly, but I’m curious.”
Tim rubbed his jaw, wishing he could rub away the whole week, make himself new again, unscathed. “You want me to apologise for pushing you away, is that it?”
“No. It’s a sign of weakness.”
“Yeah? Maybe I’m weak, Tony.” Tim felt like punching something. He settled for balling his fists. “I can’t just push my emotions to the side and soldier on like a good little detective. I’ve tried. I’m not that strong.”
Tony stared at him from under lowered brows; assessing, scrutinizing. “You think it’s meant to come easy? That you wake up one day with a heart of stone?”
“No, but...” Tim flailed. “I wish I had more control. If I hadn’t panicked, if I had been more alert...”
“If you’d been Superman, you mean? Perfect? If you could dodge circumstance and come out the winner? If bad things didn’t happen to good people and crime wasn’t committed, and people you liked never, ever died?”
Tim closed his eyes, took a deep breath. “I may as well have killed Erin myself, I was next to useless to stop her attacker.”
“He’s in jail. You caught him.”
“Too late. The damage was done.”
Tony took hold of his hands, loosened his fists by rubbing gently, and Tim thought he might collapse from relief at the touch. “Welcome to your initiation, Probie. Lesson one, life sucks.” Tony moved closer, letting go of his hands and shrugging his jacket off his shoulders instead. “Lesson two, there are ways to make it better.”
Fornell was peering at him like he wanted to read his fine print. Tim allowed him time to examine and peruse. He was reading Fornell.
“You are sure about this, McGee? You’ll be surrounded by dangerous people.”
‘Really now? And I thought they were that fluffy, loveable kind of vigilante terrorist. Like a carebear.’ Tim didn’t say.
“I’m up for the challenge,” he said instead, giving the small, self-assured smile he’d practiced in the mirror every morning the past two years.
“There’ll be a test. You’ll have to hack highly sensitive, privileged information.”
“How’s that any different from what he does now?” Gibbs asked, slamming two coffee cups on the table between them.
“This time he’ll be sharing that information with men and women who don’t know the meaning of the word ‘patriot’.”
“There’s women?” Tim asked, aiming for levity, and by the expressions he was met with, failing miserably.
“Your primary contact’s name is Emma King. She isn’t one of them, she headhunts on their behalf. Your meeting with her will be mediated by undercover agent Ian Stern. This is the profile we’ve built for you. Read it, memorise it, live it. A lot of it is true to life because the best lies are couched in reality.”
“And let’s be honest here, McGee, you’re not specifically trained for this,” Gibbs added.
Fornell gave Gibbs a death-stare. “Gibbs, you’re making the boy nervous.”
“He’s not a boy. And we need to face reality, Tobias. McGee’s good, but is he really the best man for the job?”
“You said I was, Boss. You trust me, don’t you?”
“I trust you. Do you trust yourself?”
Tim squared his shoulders. “I know I can do this. I want to do this.”
“I think you have your answer, Gibbs. McGee, you’ll be meeting with Stern and King at eight in the morning, at Shenandoah Park. Try and get at least some sleep so that you’ll have your wits about you. Leave everything else up to us.”
When Ziva first became part of their team, she very quickly tried to establish a rapport. Inviting him over for dinner, seeking his advice. And Tony very quickly became jealous. Tim wasn’t blind, he’d seen the spark between them, the one-two step of seduction Ziva danced around Tony’s desk every couple of hours. Tim knew Tony was angry ‘McGeek’ was getting in the way of inter-agency passion, likely result an NCIS/Mossad lovechild that could make three linked film references while snapping your neck.
Except. Apparently no one had told Tony that’s what had been going on. Because two nights after being trapped in a box with Ziva, Tony was at Tim’s door with a pepperoni, sausage and extra cheese pizza, what looked like more beer than either of them could healthily consume in a week, and a gigantic box of condoms.
As far as understanding Tony went, Tim did considerably better with decrypting 256-bit Rijndael.
For around ten minutes, Tim successfully convinced himself that Tony was letting his sexual frustration out on him because he was accessible. Ten minutes of slightly disgruntled acquiescence, because, seriously, who was going to complain about sex with ‘The Sex Machine’? (but, dammit, was this what he was reduced to? Being a casual fuck-buddy whenever Tony felt like it? No say in the matter at all? Apparently.)
Ten minutes before Tony mumbled, “Do you trust me, McGee?”
“That depends,” Tim had said, which, with 20/20 hindsight, had really not been the brightest thing to say.
“Well, what are the parameters?”
Tim thought about it. Nodded. “Yeah, I trust you with my life. You’re a highly skilled field operative who is ridiculously brave.”
“Almost certifiable about it.”
This had been the point that even past-Tim had realised he was wading into dangerous waters. Tony’s eyes had clouded over and he’d gotten that tight, clenched look in his jaw he knew too well. His eyelids had flickered, twice, and he’d tilted his head a millimetre to the left.
“So what wouldn’t you trust me with?”
“My vintage records? My latest manuscript? Uh, lemme see. Childhood stories. The formulation of a diet. My sister...”
“I get the point, Probie.”
“... my 28 inch LCD monitor, any type of glue, my online handle, the keys to my future car.”
“I said I get the point.”
The sex had been hard and rough in all the right ways, Tony pinning Tim and handcuffing one of his wrists to the headboard.
In post-coital reflection, Tim thought he shouldn’t have continued goading, but it had been irresistible, and he hadn’t recognised the need in Tony’s voice, hadn’t considered his motivations in context, was too insecure to think that Tony might have acted the way he did because he was jealous for him, not of him.
Even if he had wanted to live in self-delusion for a while, the bite marks and finger-tip bruises had been a continuous reminder that Tony had twisted his perceptions. He’d had a week of staring at souvenirs that called to mind harsh-throated words.
“I want you to think about how I make you feel if you ever fuck her, and ask yourself how we compare. I guarantee this is better.”
At three in the morning Tim put a trace on the GPS in Tony’s phone. It showed up as being at the office, which concerned Tim further, because Tony always had his phone. (Through rain, sleet, hail, or snow, he had his phone. He’d made jokes about taping it to sensitive parts of his anatomy when the need called for it.) Ziva’s and Gibbs’ phones showed as them being at their homes.
Tony didn’t appear later that morning. Or the day after that. At which point, Gibbs could no longer be seen entering or exiting the office, his GPS signal completely lost. On the fourth day, Ziva went missing. Tim freaked out. He checked through their bank records and discovered Tony hadn’t used his credit card the last five days. Gibbs had stopped using his two days before. Ziva was still using hers, having just bought gas in Dale City.
He’d had enough of hiding in his safe house, waiting for the answers to come to him. He didn’t care how dangerous it was, or if it would blow his cover. If his team was in trouble, he had to help them. He put traps into place in his apartment and geared up. If Ziva was in Dale City, or had been, that was where he had to go. And hope she was on the trail of Gibbs and Tony.
Tim glared up at the light fitting every time he took a swig of beer. Occasionally he glanced at his laptop on the coffee-table, to check if his mods had finished downloading. Tony was watching Bad Boys II, which, according to him, was one of the rare examples of a sequel being better than its predecessor.
“That’s not what the IMDb says,” Tim said when Tony paused for a toilet break.
“IMDb isn’t always right. They put American Beauty in the Top 250 films category. Not only is it vastly overrated, it’s narrated by Kevin Spacey’s character, who is dead. As a writer, you would know that this goes against one of the unwritten rules of narration.”
“They’re unwritten because they can be broken, Tony.”
“You’d write a story from the perspective of a dead guy?”
“I don’t see why not.” Tim placed his bottle on the table a little too forcefully, the sound reverberating in the apartment.
Tony slid a hand down Tim’s arm, giving him a little shake. “Are you okay? It’s been a tough week, fronting up to the LVM and being mocked by Gibbs.”
“You started it. All that bull-crap about my skincare regimen. You know that lotion was recommended, you drove me to the doctor,” Tim grumbled. He could tell Tony was concealing a smile and it only made him more mad.
Tony stroked his cheek softly, raising an eyebrow. “I’m sorry.”
Tim grabbed his wrist and pulled it away. “No, you’re not. It’s dangerous, don’t you get that? There’s more than rule twelve at play.”
“Newsflash: I was maintaining our cover.”
“How do you figure that?”
“Okay, so, you’re not the most macho of men, I think we can agree there. But you are very clearly a man. I wanted you to assert that man-ness, so that everyone would see you for the man you are. And then their little minds wouldn’t once think you have a gigantic crush on me.”
“You’re insane. You have serious issues.”
“You’re just annoyed because I was questioning your masculinity.”
“Wouldn’t you be?”
“Yeah, but no one ever would.”
“God, you are so --- I don’t even ---” Tim stood, stormed from the DVD shelf to the bedroom door and back again. “I could have gotten myself killed, asserting my man-ness.”
“Because you were being an idiot.”
Tim glared at Tony, gave a statement rather than asking a question. “You don’t want me to stand up for myself.”
Tony stood, placed his hands on Tim’s upper arms. Shook him again. “Of course I do. To me, to people like me, you stand up for yourself. To an organised gang like the LVM, Tim? You suppress any urge you have to threaten or challenge. It’s called a survival instinct. Get one.”
“You make no sense. Not even a little bit. One second you’re ragging on me in front of Ziva --- look how girly Probie is, oh hey, he might be gay --- all in an effort to get me to man up so no one finds out about us. And the next you’re upset because I attempt to show that I’m not girly --- not that there’s anything wrong with being a girl, Tony --- by being a tough guy.”
Tony was cagey. “That sounds about right.”
“What part of that is logical?”
“Every part. I don’t wanna lose you. To protocol or a bullet to the head.”
“If you hadn’t said anything, neither of those was likely to happen now, was it?” Tim asked, because, he truly, honestly, absolutely had no idea why the hell Tony did the things he did. But thinking about what he’d just said was making his heart speed up, far too fast, and oxygen didn’t seem to want to be breathed in any time soon.
Tony shrugged a shoulder, his expression guarded.
Tim frowned. “Hang on, were you warning Ziva off me?”
Tony stepped back, flung his hands up in the air. “I don’t mean to do it. I get bored. And then I think about how friendly you are. And how aggressively sexual Ziva is, and...”
“Look, if either of us is hopping into bed with Ziva, it’s you.”
Tim’s universe tilted to the left. “What?”
“We’re not exclusive.”
“Yeah. If I hadn’t believed the stories, the multiple pairs of panties in your couch told me that.”
Tony sat down on the couch, using his knees as props for his elbows. He rubbed his face a couple of times, took a deep breath, and Tim had the strong impression of a teenager about to ask their long-held unrequited love out on a first date.
“Yeah, so. I think the psychologists call it ‘projecting’, I don’t know. I mean, for the longest time, I was genuinely worried you were --- don’t think that me agreeing before means I don’t think you could score a babe, because we both know you can. And you were both sickly cute together and teaming up against me. But then Ziva started to look at me like, ‘hello’, you know? And the thing is, Probie, I actually really... you make me... I always have... but Ziva is ---” Tony faltered and flailed, face creased up into an origami display of confusion.
Tim sat down next to Tony again, spread his hands wide. “She’s really hot.”
“I won’t be angry if you sleep with her, Tony. Last I checked, we weren’t married and I’ve never asked to be your one and only.”
“It’s more complicated than that.”
“I’m sure, in your world, it is.”
Tony gazed at him. “What’s that supposed to mean?”
“Exactly what it sounds like.” Tim frowned at the image of Will Smith frozen on the screen. “Restart the movie.”
“No. I’ll grant you A Fistful of Dollars as a film. Something where a dude gets shot, falls on a landmine and is blown in two? Is a movie.”
“You’re so snippy today. Did someone replace one of your personality chips with that of a crab?”
“Did someone replace one of your personality chips with that of a moron? Oh, wait...”
Part 1, Part 2, Part 3